Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Serial 31: The Highlanders

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben, and Polly

Written by: Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
Directed by: Hugh David

Background & Significance: In the Classic series there's always a crossfade across Doctors and production teams and it always takes a little bit for the production to steer the show into a new and interesting direction. This is perhaps most evident in "Robot," in which Tom Baker's first story is a Pertwee story produced by Barry Letts and written by Terrence Dicks. At its most lengthy, we have the transition from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.

"The Highlanders" is a big transition point, and not only because it's the first story to feature the 2nd Doctor's key companion: Jamie Robert McCrimmon.

Written by the developer of Z-Cars and one-time Doctor Who writer Elwyn Jones, "The Highlanders" finds itself as a bridge of sorts. That's not surprising. "The Highlanders" is a historical, and really the last true historical until "Black Orchid" some fifteen years later. And if you wanna go for something more attainable, like Doctor Who in a historical setting, you'd still have to jump all the way to "The Time Warrior", which was seven years after this. As a historical, it's clear it's on the way out. "The Time Meddler" as a thing pretty much cripples the pure historical by introducing science fiction elements (which makes for an admittedly cooler story) while "The Massacre" was a glorious swan song for John Lucarotti's brand of intense character drama.

"The Gunfighters" and "The Smugglers" are still fantastic.

But this is the last historical we'll talk about on this blog, and I feel it's a good time to look at the historical outside of a Hartnell context. Sure, the last time we did a historical was an unmitigated disaster (and possibly the worst entry I've written for this blog, hence the lack of link) but I think that maybe we can bring in some discussion or what have you as we dissect this moment of transition for both the Troughton era and the show in general. Historicals? What is it about them? And Troughton? How does early Troughton look as we slowly brush up closer and closer to his regeneration.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

For his first and only Doctor Who story, Elwyn Jones set the TARDIS down in the middle of the Highlander uprising of the 18th Century. And what’s impressive right off the bat is how much violence there is.

It’s not a surprise, of course. There would almost have to be violence in a story that tells about the war between some Highlanders and some Redcoats. But we also know that there’s some of it that was deemed “too violent” for the airwaves of whatever territory broadcast this story. The same thing happened in “Fury From the Deep” where we have a few extraneous clips because they were deemed “too intense” for regular television. Inevitably, these always end up being the best clips because, quite frankly, censors seem to hate “good things.” And yeah. The one that’s censored out of this episode is of Jamie’s brother skewering a Redcoat in the gut with a sword. And that’s lovely to see. Glad we keep that.

What makes this story interesting is the way in which it very much lines up with a traditional history. There’s a case of mistaken identities because the TARDIS crew always seems to either misrepresent themselves or get mistaken for someone else. (Think back, it happens in all the good ones)

So The Doctor and Ben are carted off with the McCrimmon clan to the gallows because the Redcoats are angry and Redcoaty. This isn’t a real surprise at all, I think. Capture in Doctor Who stories is a thing that happens always. So it also isn’t a surprise that Polly goes off with Kirsty on their own separate adventure to do whatever it is they’re doing while The Doctor etc. are trying to not be the next in a long series of hanging going on during this war with the Highlanders. This leaves us with two parallel storylines going on at the same time, which is totally normal for both a Doctor Who story and a historical.

But then there’s The Doctor.

Right off the bat, and what’s interesting in watching Troughton here, is there’s an ambiguity to his character because, quite frankly, he’s not been The Doctor for that long and as viewers we’re still not supposed to be sure about his inherent benevolence.

Even Ben and Polly come across as a little overly cautious with The Doctor, not quite sure where he’s coming from with all of this. And god bless the 2nd Doctor because he is completely unpredictable at every turn. Never is this more obvious than when the Redcoats prepare to cart him away with the McCrimmons and The Doctor slips almost schizophrenically into a new persona: that of “Docktor von Wer”, a German Doctor who’s been taken prisoner by the Highlanders and demands their release.

So less than halfway into the episode we have a bizarre left turn that is about as far as we can get from Hartnell’s portrayal. Can you imagine Hartnell descending into a new persona like this?

The answer is obviously no. It’s telling that we’re so far from Hartnell despite his departure just a few episodes ago. This is a completely different Doctor and a completely different person. Hartnell was always in the business of making sure the people in the setting understood at least the template for who he was: a wanderer. He always attempted to do convey the information by telling the characters with his words. But Troughton goes for a more action-based approach. His actions display what he’s doing.

It’s a fantastic case study to demonstrate what’s different between two Doctors and how they would handle different situations. Troughton’s already on fire here and we’re barely seven episodes into his run. Outstanding.

Part 2:

So the historical continues with Polly separated from Ben and The Doctor, and complexifies by having The Doctor split off from Ben towards the beginning of this episode. So now there’s three storylines going on simultaneously.

Ben’s story is easiest to deal with. Ben spends the rest of the episode under lock and key, moved towards the end by the Redcoats as they prepare to ship off their prisoners of war to the Bahamas or wherever to work as slaves. Nothing really happens with him. His loyalty is questioned, especially after The Doctor’s departure (which I’ll talk about in just a minute) but more than anything he spends his time convincing everyone that The Doctor’s intentions are well and good. But that can’t be easy for him. It’s hard to believe that even given all the events of the previous story that he’s one hundred percent on board with The Doctor’s actions. It must be disconcerting to him. I mean, hell, it’s disconcerting to me and I trust The Doctor (and especially this Doctor) constantly.

So Ben is noble.

Polly and Kirsty find themselves stuck in a hole for the first bit of this episode and eventually manage to get a Redcoat captain (Ffinch) stuck in the hole with them. They rob him and manage to flee.

Honestly, the best part about this storyline is Ffinch, who clearly doesn’t get what the hell he’s saying or doing at any given moment. He’s constantly threatening the men under his command with a ludicrous amount of lashes if they don’t hold to his high standards. And it’s clear that this fellow has a real inferiority complex. Or he’s a perfectionist. Something like that. Because things need to be perfect. And yet, when his men return after fetching him a horse he threatens them with hundreds of lashes if they don’t get him out of the hole that Polly and Kirsty left him in.

It’s really a nice commentary on the officers in the British army circa the 18th Century. Officers were generally just the privileged elite who were blessed with both land and noble status. They would not be in the “general caste” of British soldiers. No. They would buy their way into officership, regardless of military prowess.

As far as military strategy and employment strategies go, it’s not necessarily the best practice. It means you get jackholes like Ffinch. He knows nothing but carrot or stick. He threatens his men with lashings if they don’t pull him out of the hole he’s stuck in. Only there’s one problem. If they don’t pull him out of the hole and they just walk away he won’t be pulled out and then they won’t be lashed. So that doesn’t work. Then his offers to pay them cashy money, except he doesn’t have any cash on him (because Polly and Kirsty stole it all) so his bribes are worth nothing.

And it’s a delightful comic thing, especially because his men are resentful of the way this noble dude is treating them. A lovely context to the historical fabric of the narrative.

But the most interesting thing about this episode is The Doctor.

In the first episode I talked about the weird left turn Troughton took with his weird accent and seeming schizophrenia when it came to the Redcoats. But in this episode he dials that up to eleven. He plans a mass prison singing (yes, this is a thing) that annoys the hell out of the Redcoats, and uses the resultant breaking-up that the Redcoats come in and do to get their attention. He then reveals to the Redcoats that he’s still Doctor von Wer and that these Highlanders were talking about a planned assassination attempt against the Duke of Cumberland. The Redcoats decide to give him the time of day and take him to see one of their officers.

So that’s something. The Doctor slipping back into a persona and then seemingly betraying everyone who’s joining him in a cell.

Then his behavior goes… erratic. I’d actually go so far as to call it “reckless”. He gets an audience with the Solicitor Grey and under the guise of Doctor von Wer ties him up and gags him and throws him into a closet. And Troughton plays it borderline malicious. Like... he seems to be relishing in the little fun game he’s playing. It’s offputting. We’re still dealing with new Doctor who we don’t quite have a full context for and here we have him physically overpowering a Redcoat officer. It’s way beyond anything you could even imagine Hartnell doing.

He goes further.

Grey’s clerk Perkins comes in. Perkins (being a clerk) is not nearly so bright as the people around him and The Doctor uses this to his advantage. He plays as Doctor von Wer again and says to him that his headaches are getting the better of him, making him hear voices and sounds (the voices and sounds being Solicitor Grey bound and gagged in a closet not five feet away) by banging Perkins' repeatedly against a desk until he has a headache. And this isn’t anywhere near as violent as watching one dude stab another (as we saw in the first episode) but it is… violent. We’re watching The Doctor [essentially] beat a man into submission for his own purposes. It takes The Doctor’s previous recklessness and ups it.

And then he flees the base and dresses up like an old crone to track down Ben and Jamie after they’ve been moved. He even interacts with Redcoats and tricks them into not locking doors due to his erratic crone behavior.

Okay. Here’s the thing. This is messed up. There’s something impossibly unsettling in seeing The Doctor strip off his crone clothes at the end of the episode. His actions in this episode have cast him as a reckless, erratic, dangerous wild card. We have no idea what the hell he’s doing or why he’s doing it. He just seems to be improvising around everything. And it’s… I dunno. It’s like the 7th Doctor dialed up to eleven because the 7th Doctor never played a variety of characters or dressed up like old crones to get what he wanted.

He’s dangerous. And again, I KNOW The Doctor’s on the side of good. And I KNOW that he isn’t doesn’t things willy nilly. It might seem like he’s lost his mind, but he hasn’t. Two episodes in and The Doctor has proved himself a complete wild card in the story. There’s no telling what he’ll do next or what’s coming and god dammit. It is freaking impossibly exciting.

Part 3:

Elwyn Jones came up with the outline for this story, but wasn’t able to complete it before needing to head off to work on another project. As such, it’s credited to both him and Gerry Davis, which was a rarity for Classic Who.

This, to me, explains why there’s elements that are set up and dropped in this part. We see the return of Ffinch, but nothing comes of the fact that Polly and Kirsty have blackmail on him (which was established in the last episode but glossed over here). It’s mostly played for comedy (as most of this story is). It’s still strange to create a plot point and have it complete dropped almost instantly. And it wouldn’t be that weird. I mean, I wouldn’t have remembered that they had the blackmail at all (it’s not much blackmail at all really) but that they have blackmail is specifically reiterated by Polly here.

That probably also explains why this story is very slipshod. It feels like it’s hastily assembled and a little rough on the edges. There’s a charm to that.

But that also explains why Ben is relegated to being stuck in the pirate ship for this whole episode. If nothing else, I love that he takes the initiative to tear up all the contracts and in their mad obsession with bureaucracy the British Redcoats need to go back to the bar and draw up a whole new batch of contracts so they can Xerox them and have the lawful selling of Highlanders into slavery. It’s a delightful comic moment and hilarious because of its sheer banality and wonderful in how it speaks to Ben being anti-establishment and doing something that isn’t just sitting in a ship waiting for rescue.

And then there’s The Doctor, who moves from Crone to Doctor von Wer and back on a dime. The intimidation and fear he invokes in Perkins is hilarious and legendary. All he did was hit his head a few times.

But I love the way that The Doctor is still erratic even now that he’s rejoined with Polly and Kirsty. He seems to be in absolutely no rush and even lays down for a bit of a respite before going off to rescue Ben. Actually, that’s not quite true. He’s content to hang out for a few years while Ben gets shipped off to the Indies, escapes, and then escapes back to the British Isles. It’s… madness that this is The Doctor and he does it while still wearing his crone dress. Had this been Hartnell, he probably woulda worked on a plan, but Troughton is more content to wait, at least, until he gets a plan or what have you. It’s still bizarre to see.

It’s a scattershot story without much to say. And that’s fine. That happens, I suppose. But the structure is weird. The episode starts with a dude getting thrown overboard and drowning in the water and ends with Ben getting dropped into the water, seemingly drowning to death.

I’m of two minds of this. On the one hand, the throwing of the guy overboard at the end of episode two/start of episode three seems like a promise the show expects itself to fulfill at the end of the episode. And in that, it’s kinda good. But on the other hand it feels like a weird structural thing. The episode ends where it begins: with someone being tossed overboard to drown. Of course, the point here is different as we’ll discover in episode four. But it still feels a bit incongruous. Is it good structure or poor? I tend to have a “have faith in creators” rule, but I’m not sure that’s the case here.

It is, after all, a slipshod production.

Part 4:


What I like about this episode is the way it completely wraps everything up and satisfyingly. Turns out I was wrong to leap on the Ffinch storyline as a random plot point dropped, as it comes back around with Polly using him to get them through the Redcoat lines and back to the TARDIS. The ship filled with supposed slaves being sent off to Barbados makes a break for France to live out the rest of their lives. Grey, Perkins, and the previously-unmentioned Captain Trent are all given a certain comeuppance that’s rather satisfying. And of course The TARDIS gets a new traveling companion in the form of Jamie McCrimmon, young Scottish highlander.

Honestly, it’s a thrilling, exciting piece of work. There’s tons of action and reversals and surprises. The sequence in which the highlanders take over Trent’s ship and fight for their freedom is probably thrilling and feels like the same ilk as the big climactic set piece at the end of “The Smugglers.” That probably has something to do with the pirate ship and Captain Trent being a real rapscallion. But it’s still what the story’s been building towards for the past four parts. The highlanders have been under lock and key for the whole story, and unable to fight the British. That’s another thing that’s a promise. We start with a big fight of highlanders and Redcoats and we end with the Highlanders coming back and kicking ass and taking names. WITH CUTLASSES!

And then there’s the daring race back to the TARDIS, which is full of tense sequences of running and trying to get away.

It’s a really excellent ending, but isn’t it weird that Jamie is there?

Jamie’s reappearance at the end of the story, on the docks, just after Trent’s ship has sailed away to make for France, is a bizarre moment. There’s no indication of how Jamie got back to shore nor that he traveled with them at all. He just re-appears, an apparition in the night to guide the crew back to the TARDIS. For his bravery he is awarded travel in The Doctor’s TARDIS. But it still feels weird. I once heard it described as the real sequence of events having Jamie, previously unremarkable for the first three episodes, sailing off to live in France to have a long, Doctor-free existence. I enjoy that fantasy, for some reason, and maybe that’s because I know that for all of Jamie’s trouble he might as well not have gone with The Doctor at all: it’ll be erased from his memory anyways.

But he’s a welcome addition, as Troughton’s era would be not nearly as special without the perfect marriage of Jamie and 2nd Doctor. It’s just that the circumstances do appear as a road diverging in a wood. In one world, Jamie never travels with The Doctor. In this world, he does.

And I welcome that.

Final Thoughts?: This is a lovely little story.

For one thing, it's a nice sort of ending to the historical as a genre. It's a really funny story and has a thrilling and daring ending.

But it also shows how Troughton's Doctor never really quite fits into the era. It's clear that even he is not comfortable in his own presence there, slipping in and out of various characters. And why would he be? Hartnell's Doctor lent himself much more to the aimless wanderer. His first historicals were all about noninterference and taking a real survey of humanity, regardless of the adventure happening around him. Troughton's Doctor comes with a much different mantra. It's the "there are evils in the universe. They must be fought" thing that doesn't lend itself to historicals. If he's to leave history largely unchanged, he can't go out crusading against evil. Pre-established events have already happened. He can't go back and kill Hitler because (quite frankly) that already happened.

And it's also the first time The Doctor has pulled a companion from the past to travel with him in the TARDIS. Which is interesting.

It's a thrilling and fun story full of action and tremendous comedy. Troughton is the highlight and it almost makes me sad he's not in more historicals because Troughton is a mad fantastic dress-upper. The bit where he's a wounded soldier is good enough to rival Pertwee's costuming in "The Green Death". He's fantastic and mischievous and you never quite know the way he's going to go with anything. It's a great statement for his Doctor and the way he goes moving forward. Hell, it takes the lingering uncertainty of the regeneration and milks it for all its worth. The ambiguity goes away in the next story, but for this. For this glorious moment we have Patrick Troughton dressed up like an old crone and acting like a reckless lunatic.

And sometimes, that's just what you want.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Steven and Vicki! Chumblies! Drahvin! A countdown! A subversion! So many things! Or not. "Galaxy 4"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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